Still Paula Jean. 😉
(Click play below for narrated version.)
I’m an actor and screenwriter, though you will find none of that stuff on this space (aside from an ‘audition lewk’ or two). If for any reason you’re curious about my real life of pretending, feel free to mosey on over to here.
Now—to my sewing journey! It’s a bit of tale…
I always say I started sewing around nine years old, but that’s not actually true. The gateway was a plain ol’ needle and thread when I was about six. In an attempt to make fabulous dresses for my Barbies, I cut out flat pieces of scrap fabric with terrible scissors and made stitches that were about two inches long. The fabric frayed and I didn’t know to knot the end of the thread, so when I jammed my doll into the ‘dress’, the effect was more Wilma Flintstone than the Bob Mackie I was going for (not that I knew his name at the time, but as a Gen-X kid who grew up loving variety shows and Cher, he made an early and consistent impression on me).
Ah, but then…then came the Mattel Sew Perfect Sewing Machine for Christmas when I was eight! That smooth beige plastic, shiny blue sticker, and weird combo needle/bobbin cartridge thingy held the promise of all my design dreams soon becoming manifest. It wouldn’t be long before I would far surpass the simple pillow and halter top patterns that came in the box and move on to red-carpet-worthy masterpieces. Of course, to do that would have required that said bobbin cartridge had more than three yards of thread on it, and that replacements didn’t cost an arm and a leg. But hey – it made a pretty chain stitch and ran on batteries, so I could sew anywhere!
My first introduction to a ‘real’ machine happened during a week-long stay with a woman who was my step-grandmother for a brief time (my family tree is complicated and requires a PowerPoint presentation, so that’ll do for now). Every closet in Maxine’s house was filled to the brim with beautiful clothes, mostly dresses and coats, all hand made my her. She had boxes overflowing with vintage patterns from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. I still had my Sew Perfect, and when Maxine pulled out her machine to work at one end of the dining room table, I very ceremoniously set up mine at the opposite end. But my batteries soon died, and after an extensive junk-drawer search turned up none of the right size, she asked if I wanted to try her machine. I tried to act like it was no big deal, but it was the very biggest of deals. It felt like driving a car – not in a ‘Hey, look at me! I’m driving a car!!’ kind of way, but in a ‘Holy sh*t – I can’t drive a car why am I driving a car?!’ kind of of way. It excited me and it freaked me right out.
So when my Dad and future stepmom moved in together, my heart skipped a beat upon seeing her Kenmore machine set up in the guest room where we kids slept on our weekend visits. When Marva sat down to work on a shirt she was making for my dad, I was breathing down her neck so creepily and relentlessly, there’s probably a Stephen King story out there about it somewhere. Boy howdy, what I put that woman through! Question after question after question about every stitch and snip—I honestly don’t know how she didn’t stab me in the head with the scissors. I mean, I guess prison was a deterrent, but it also would have meant a break from me, so…tough call, is what I’m saying. Marva’s saintly patience led to me making not only a way more upscale wardrobe for my dolls, but so many clothes for myself throughout junior high and high school, from choir uniforms to school play costumes to oversized button-up shirts and stirrup pants (lest there was any doubt about my 80s adolescence) to prom dresses. All the heart eyes to you, Marv!
It would stand to reason that this would dovetail into an illustrious career in the fashion industry, wouldn’t it? Yeah…not so much. It was more of a stumble in, following a move to Montreal to marry a guy I met in a boating accident. Long story short-ish, I found my 22-year-old self running a division of a company that was the Canadian licensee for a very famous American children’s wear brand. I did everything: chose styles, ordered fabrics, changed designs and came up with new ones to suit our market, digitized patterns, had the samples made, prepared everything for the sales team, sold to major retailers, travelled to international conferences. And because I was so inexperienced and clueless as to what that kind of position was worth, it seemed perfectly reasonable that I was working 12-14 hours a day (16-18 the week before a new line went out to the sales team) and making less than a convenience store cashier. I wish that was hyperbole, but it really isn’t. I mean, I had to pay my dues, right? With my health, relationships, and sanity? By the time I moved to a smaller, less hectic company, I was already burned out. I left the career and the guy and escaped into the comfort of theatre school.
“Of course! Costume design!”, you might be thinking. Nope! What I really wanted to do was perform—that was my focus, and eventually my career. One of the many things I learned in the trenches of the fashion business is that I didn’t really get any satisfaction out of seeing my ideas on other people. I wanted to wear them myself! To this day, the costume fitting process is one of my favourite parts of preparing for a role, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the most amazingly talented designers in theatre and film. I love that my sewing background is a point of connection, without being part of my job. While I did take a few sewing contracts in the years that acting wasn’t covering the bills, my enjoyment of it always took a hit. It pushed all my perfectionist and imposter-syndrome buttons. No matter what I charged, it left me with feelings of either guilt or resentment. As a sewist, I was happiest when I had an opening night or wedding or some special occasion for which I could make something unique and beautiful to wear.
And then came a whirlwind decade and a half of working and falling in love and moving and getting married and immigration and moving again and…(trumpet blast) perimenopause! Cue the hormonal changes, frustration over my morphing skin suit , and not wanting to make anything due to fear of it not fitting this body that I felt so betrayed by. For several years, I cried in dressing rooms and consistently found new and awful ways of berating myself, saying things in the mirror that I wouldn’t say to my worst enemy. It was…unsustainable, to say the least.
Shortly before my 50th birthday, I caved and joined Instagram. I’m not sure how it happened, as I don’t know many sewists in real life, but somehow I came upon the huge, welcoming, inspiring, international sewing and making community on on this social media platform of which I had been so skeptical. A whole universe of indie pattern designers? And PDF patterns? And videos for techniques that may have gone rusty while I was busy beating myself up? Whaaaat?!? Yes, please and thank you! So I dusted off Lucy (my sewing machine), pulled out the miles of fabric that I had carted across the continent, and dove in. After conquering my first ever pair of jeans (Gingers, of course), I opened a dedicated IG account just for my makes. I then decided to try a ready-to-wear fast for a year…and just kept going.
I can honestly say that sewing has been a star player in my mental health, my creativity, and my body acceptance. It has re-ignited my passion for exploring different styles based on my own curiosity as opposed to what society and retail buyers have deemed ‘appropriate’ for my age and body shape. While I work in the arts and I love it, it’s an erratic industry with lots of judgement, lots of people to answer to, lots of locked doors, and some of the best work never sees the light of day. Being able to make something from start to finish, with my own hands, answering to no one but myself…it truly helps to keep my self-worth and my gratitude at closer-to-optimum levels.
So there you have it! My sewing story in a (very large) nutshell. Thank you for taking this trip down memory lane with me, dear reader. I’ll leave you with this: No matter what it may be, whether or not it earns you money, protect your hobby. Remember that the joy you derive from it is its greatest value. Treat it and yourself with respect, care, patience, and love. You deserve it.